Friday, January 8, 2010

Abrahamic bias

It used to baffle me that Pascal's wager is so widely accepted, or at least, non-instantly rejected. Pascal's wager, to refresh your memory, is the suggestion that you should definitely believe in God just in case he's real. If believe in God and you're right, you get eternal glory. If you're wrong, no harm done. If you don't believe and you're right, again no harm done. But if you're wrong, eternal damnation. When you put it that way, it's an obvious choice.

But of course this begs the question, which God should I believe in? Presumably believing in the wrong one is also a recipe for disaster in the afterlife, even if not as bad as believing in none at all. And does God only care that you believe in him, but not that you do what he wants? If not, you run the additional risk of getting his commandments wrong. If the devil has recently come into power, I doubt he will look too kindly on Protestant prostration.

For any set of beliefs you use Pascal's wager to convince me I should follow, I can exactly invert them and use the same argument in my defense.

The reason this trickery is not immediately dismissed by otherwise intelligent people is that we share a common concept of what God is. In our everyday lives, even among Jews and Muslims and every imaginable flavor of Christianity, we never encounter a serious dispute about what this god guy basically is. It's so engrained we no longer have the imagination to doubt it. And if the God of Abraham was the ONLY possibility, and the details about what foods are allowed and what acts are abominations weren't so relevant, I might take Pascal's word to heart myself.

This bias manifests in other ways as well, one of which is much more relevant to modern faith than some ancient mathematician. That is the bias towards monotheism itself, as the obvious successor to ancient inferior Pagan world views that included hundreds of deities that were even allowed to conflict and take out their differences on the physical world. The debate about God doesn't even consider these faiths. Obviously those people were crazy, say the modern faithful, without stopping to notice that the only (false) logical leg up they have on the Greeks and Romans is that of recent consensus.

The world divides neatly into the monotheisms and the "faithless" religions like Buddhism and Confucianism, along with the straight-up nonreligious. The nonreligious still have such an Abrahamic bias that they don't question this duopoly of positions either. If they did, the might notice that the monotheists actually have a very real logical leg down on the clueless and primitive polytheistic faiths.

The most common cause for a crisis of faith is the incompatibility of a loving, omnipotent God and the horror we see everywhere everyday. Those who manage to cling to faith after an earthquake kills thousands of devout fellow believers can only do so by chalking it up to God's "mysterious ways" (while of course insisting with sudden confidence that the same event is a case of divine punishment when it happens to anyone they don't like). But polytheism doesn't have this problem at all. Sure maybe Zeus is all-loving but his jealous brother got ahold of the reins that day. Oops.

In fact this is so easy and so tempting a solution that even the monotheisms can't completely avoid it. Judaism's God is subject to wrathful mood-swings, Christianity and Mormonism have the devil, Islam has satanic verses and djinns, and Zoroastrianism has opposing good and evil spirits (neither of which is the one god.)

Of course, this still isn't as tempting an explanation as (gasp) plate tectonics, but I'll take it as a first step.